Professor Andre Schmid, University of Toronto, spoke at Penn on Tuesday, March 28, hosted by the Kim Program in Korean Studies. Prof. Schmid’s talk was titled “Is There A North Korean History Without Kim Il Sung?” Schmid said the title is an essential question which captures a very real doubt that he has harbored for many years as a historian of North Korea.
Telling the history of North Korea is certainly no easy task. Schmid said he once though it too difficult to do a history of North Korea. There was likely too much propaganda, too much Kim Il Sung, and not enough sources. But now Schmid is writing a book on the history of North Korea, focusing on socio-economics and issues of domesticity. Schmid said that with this project, he is trying to prove wrong his own previous assumptions.
There is an analytical conundrum in the study of North Korea, said Schmid. Our histories have a paradoxical tendency to reproduce in North Korea’s own framework. Observers of North Korea are often stuck in a mode of analysis which owes much to North Korean propaganda and the categorical modes of Cold War thinking. People are often obsessed with Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. We critique North Korea and its leadership cult, yet at the same time there is a pleasure taken in reveling at the bizarreness of North Korea. Schmid said it is bot much of an exaggeration to say that our histories of North Korea have pretty much become biographies of the three Kims. Even our periodization of North Korean history is based on their reigns. The nature and center of power in North Korea has become an a priori assumption.
Schmid discussed two examples of how to interpret North Korean history differently. His first example was the notion that North Korean subjects in the early years of North Korean history were unable to move freely or to “vote with their vote.” Officially, North Korean subjects could not choose where they lived in the 1950s and 1960s. This was presented by the state in terms of superior rationality of economic planning. But this was easier said than done. Planners found that the population was actually quite elusive. In reality, people made their own determinations about where they wanted to live, factory managers chose who they wanted to hire, despite the regulations that were on the books, revealing the limits of state power. 30 percent of workers in the industrial and transport sectors of the economy in 1959 had moved outside the restrictions of official plans. Schmid cautioned of the basic historian’s fallacy of taking intentions to be actual outcomes. Just because Kim Il Sung proclaimed something does not mean it was actually carried out.
The second example Schmid gave was consumption and material culture. Early discussion in North Korean literature of material culture is focused away from consumption and rationalized through linkage to practical purposes and goals, such as the various functions curtains fulfill in the home. The focus was away from any suggestion of consumption for consumption’s sake. But a few publications go through a change and begin to discuss ways of decorating homes and discuss objects and household items for their own sake. Photos were published which featured homes and objects without showing people in the rooms or even Kim Il Sung photos on the walls. Photos, even those with people, showed more objects and more aspects of consumption and concern for material culture than was previously the case. Some publications even featured articles and photos about fashion.
Too often we think of North Korean ideology as being completely homogenous and uniform and only coming from the top down. Publications, though, reveal that there were other sources that informed North Korean ideology aside from the top-level sources. North Korea has a socio-cultural world beyond that proliferated by the top-level sources. Even before the end of the Cold War and the opening of Soviet archives, historians in the West began to poke holes in previous interpretations of the Stalinist period through the totalitarian model. The way we understood Stalin and the Stalinist period in the 1950s is completely different than the way we understand them today. Schmid argues that we can ask questions and begin to poke holes in the way we have understood North Korea. We can move away from being locked in Cold War categories and rethink the way we historicize North Korea.